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Defensive tackle remains Cardinals' white whale

Johnny Venerable Avatar
April 18, 2022

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has been jonesing for a big man for some time. Gone are the days in which stud defensive tackles Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett dominated up front on a weekly basis. Since Campbell’s departure from the team in 2017, the Cardinals have had a glaring hole at the position for the better part of five seasons.

One could make the argument that an impact defensive linemen has become the Cardinals’ white whale.

To Keim’s credit, it’s not like he hasn’t been proactive in attempting to fill the void. From Robert Nkemdiche, to Darius Philon, Zach Allen and of course J.J. Watt, the Arizona executive has done his best to flood the position with (somewhat) quality options. In the case of Nkemdiche, it was Keim doing his best to overlook the clear character concerns and opt to bank on his supremely gifted physical traits. Unlike the hit that was Tyrann Mathieu, it was clear from the start that the former Ole Miss top recruit did not love the game of football.

Nkemdiche was once viewed as the replacement for Campbell. At the writing of this article, he is currently unsigned and out of pro football.

Watt’s recruitment and eventual signing was largely viewed as the culmination of Keim’s search, at least in the short-term. Unfortunately, the future Hall-of-Famer’s body continues to let him down as he reaches the latter years of his career. Watt missed more than half of the 2021 season, and the Cardinals’ run defense struggled up front. While he’s expected to make a full return this fall, given his recent history, it would be foolish to count on a complete campaign from the former Houston Texan.

Youngsters such as Allen, Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu all boast a certain level of promise alongside the defensive line, with Allen, the former Boston College standout, the frontrunner for a breakout campaign. Yet none appear to be the kind of franchise-altering talent for which the club has been searching so desperately for the past half decade. Perhaps that’s because they were all taken in later rounds compared to what Keim had originally planned.

Back in 2019, there were rumblings that the Arizona GM was fixated on Alabama standout defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. The following draft, numerous sources confirmed that had he fallen to pick eight, Auburn’s Derrick Brown would have heard his number called.

Alas, thanks to some other defensive-tackle needy teams, Keim was forced to pivot elsewhere.

All of this brings us to next week’s 2022 NFL Draft. The draft, like with most positions, represents the best opportunity for the Cardinals to finally upgrade at defensive tackle without the rigors and constraints of free agency. While this class does lay claim to some quality depth, the clear standout defensive tackles appear, once again, to hail from the SEC. The national championship duo of Georgia’s Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt are each trending to be first-round locks, with the latter possessing some off-the-field concerns that are likely to scare off the Cardinals.

That leaves Davis, who at last month’s NFL Combine, put together perhaps the best individual workout for any defensive tackle in the event’s history. Even with his relatively modest numbers rushing the quarterback (two sacks in 2021), expect the All-American to see his name called well before Keim is able to pick up the phone in anticipation. Which means the Cardinals would need to get creative via a trade-up, something Keim has only done once in the first round, if they hope to finally end their rotating circus of defensive-line talent.

Otherwise, you’re looking at a steady diet of UConn’s Travis Jones or Houston’s Logan Hall, two players that have already been linked to Arizona thanks to pre-draft workouts. If that’s the case, perhaps Keim has already punted on the dream of landing an SEC ass-kicker, leaving the fishing net and harpoon in storage until next offseason.

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